Ron Claiborne Visits His African Heritage

Ron Claiborne in Ghana
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This week, I am reporting on an African-American woman, Kalimah Johnson, a social worker and hair stylist from Detroit who is on a personal pilgrimage to Ghana.

After years of wondering where her ancestors came from, Johnson, 40, took a DNA test last November. The test result was that her maternal ancestry could be traced to the Akan people of Ghana. Last week, she and a few friends flew to Ghana, her first trip ever to Africa.

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When I met her in Accra this week, she told me, "I wanted to see the land. I wanted to feel the air, small the grass. I wanted to just experience this land as my ancestor experienced it."

She traveled around Ghana and took a brief side trip to Senegal. In Ghana, she visited the notorious Elmina Castle, a one-time Portugese fort that was later used as a station where African slaves were held in brutal conditions waiting shipment to the Americas.

"I felt the ancestral spirits," she said. "I heard the drums. I smelled the blood. The sweat, the tears. History classes and discussions will never do it justice. You have to stand in it if you can and experience it."

The next day, I got a text message from her. She was in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashante region.

"I love Ghana," she wrote.

Her experience is similar to mine several years ago. For a story on the DNA tests that purport to be able to tell African-Americans where their distant African ancestors came from, I took a DNA test -- though there are critics who question the accuracy of such tests.

My resullt was that my maternal ancestry was Ashante. From that, I was inspired to take a trip in 2005 much like Kalimah Johnson's. Below is what I wrote then about my experience:

May 6, 2006 -- In a sense, my journey to Ghana began last fall, months before I actually traveled to the tiny West African nation. It began in my mind and heart when "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts disclosed the results of a DNA test tracing my maternal ancestry.

"Ashanti people in Ghana," Robin said. I was overwhelmed with emotion, only dimly aware that I was on live television. I felt exhilarated.

"I felt like a door that has been closed all my life has been open," I said, and as I said it I had that literal image in my mind: an enormous door creaking open slowly to reveal an ancestry that all my life had been unknown and, I thought, unknowable. I want to note here that the accuracy of this kind of DNA test, which can cost hundreds of dollars, has been challenged by some geneticists. They say that it is possible to generally locate where one's ancestors came from, but that databases are insufficiently large to give 100 percent pinpoint results of a specific tribe or people. Having reported on this subject, I was aware of the controversies behind the science. And yet none of that mattered to me at that moment. It was something, where before I'd had nothing.

The next day, I used my British Airways frequent flier miles to get a ticket from New York to London to Accra, the capital of Ghana.

Landing in Ghana's Capital

Months later -- on March 6 -- the BA flight descended in the darkness. Out the window, I could see a scattering of lights. With a touch of nervousness that I had not expected, I thought, "This is it."

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